Study Questions for "Savant Songs" [2004] by Brenda Cooper

Cooper's story traces the attempts of Elsa Hill, an autistic professor of physics, and her graduate assistant, Adam Giles, to achieve a conceptual breakthrough by contacting other versions of themselves who live in alternate universes. The story engages contemporary theories of the multiverse to create a somewhat unusual combination of hard science fiction and romance. As you read "Savant Songs," consider some of the following issues:

  1. Why is the story titled "Savant Songs"? Identify passages that connect music and song to Elsa's research and to the idea of a multiverse.
  2. How does the story's address to the meaning of "atom" and to the notion that "Scientists make fences with ideas" (481) recall T.H. Huxley's and H.G. Wells's notions of "nominalism" and the limits of human knowledge which are presented in Huxley's essay "On a Piece of Chalk" and which are central to much of Well's fiction? [See the link to Cosmic and Ethical Evolution in Week One of the syllabus.
  3. What is the impact of the conversation between Elsa and Adam on the night that they share chili and beer (488-489)? Does their interaction suggest that they live in a deterministic universe or that they actually do have free will?
  4. How do you read the end of the story? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?